Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Biscayne Bay: Miami's neglected jewel … by gimleteye

Biscayne Bay is an extraordinary place. When I'm on the bay, looking back at the Miami skyline, I feel a palpable sense of joy. While we have turned everywhere on the coast into a version of somewhere else, the bay -- even in its decrepit state -- is unique.

Just how the bay is unique escapes the attention of most Miami residents and visitors. Not long ago in historical terms, the bay was such a prolific fishery that Bahamians braved the trip across the Gulfstream to fish here. Why?

Because the intersection of fresh water flow out of the Everglades into the salt water, shallow bay had created nearly perfect conditions for creation. The reason some of the oldest settlements in America have been found right at the mouth of the Miami River, in downtown Miami, is exactly because food was easily and readily available right there.

That we have treated Biscayne Bay with such disrespect is unsurprising, too, given human nature. People by and large show no interest in understanding the specificities of place, why they must be protected, and what they mean for the conduct of our own lives. Our indifference is wrecking the planet for the survival of our own species, and what is happening to Biscayne Bay is one more example for the log book.

It is a funny thing how many go to church on Sundays, praying for salvation, then don't give a good rat's ass to what happens to God's creation the other six days of the week. Oh. That would be the time our elected leaders pound the table for "jobs" and "the economy".

I digress. Here is a little observation about Biscayne Bay. One of the sentinel species that historically populated the bay is the bonefish.

The bonefish is a ghostly presence in the super shallow sea grass meadows that are a defining feature of the bay. It was, not many years ago, a relatively prolific feeder on specific tide cycles and water conditions; rooting through the grass to the sand for small shrimp and crabs.

Because the food chain has been interrupted by unremitting pollution and bad water quality, the bonefish are no longer prolific or predictable. What their absence represents is a profound upsetting of the balance of nature, even though on a sunny day from the perspective of power or sail boat, the bay looks spectacularly as it always has.

Last spring, a year ago, I went out for a day bone fishing (it's catch and release) with one of the most knowledgeable fishing guides in the region. We met at Key Biscayne and ran due south for about a dozen miles, stopping at flats I had fished forty years ago. Looking through the thin lens of water to the bay bottom below, everything had changed. Places that had been thick with sea grass, like the Arsenicker Keys not far from the Turkey Point nuclear power plant, were desertified; sandy, empty, and without any sign of life.

I was surprised when our guide turned back to what he called the most productive bonefish flat in Biscayne Bay. The flat is heavily populated by weekend boat traffic.

Now here is the surprise in that. If you know bonefish, you know that they are famously spooky in shallow water. These fish are only visible on certain tides, in certain light, depths and certain water temperatures. The narrow water column deprives them of the dimension of depth they require for safety, to elude predators like sharks.

So to find bonefish during the week on a heavily trafficked, weekend flat was remarkable to me. The guide offered an opinion why. He said, people throw their trash overboard on Saturday and Sunday. There is so little food for the bonefish in the bay these days, they have become scavengers during the week for our garbage.

That theory pretty much knocked me out, but it is consistent also with rare birds of the Everglades showing up on garbage piles in western Broward and Palm Beach Counties.

You could say that nature is evolving to adapt to humans, but everything we know about evolution screams out that biodiversity is being crushed by human intervention.

Do people care?

A long time ago, Juanita Greene told me the following story. It probably dates from the early 1950's, when she was a reporter for the Miami Herald. (Juanita was a longtime board member and conservation chair -- after she retired from the paper -- for Friends of the Everglades, where I serve as volunteer board chair. Friends was founded by another writer and daughter of a Miami newspaper publisher, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.)

John Knight, a founder of the Miami Herald, was a frequent visitor to the newsroom at the time. Juanita  would often collar him as he walked by, asking that the newspaper devote more in depth coverage to Biscayne Bay and the environment. He wasn't interested. There's nothing wrong with the bay, he said.

In a sense, he was right. All those fishing tables at the docks of Palm Island, Star Island off the Venetian Causeway and remnant bait shops on Biscayne Boulevard testify mutely that once, not long ago, fishing in the bay was a principal attraction for residents and visitors, who poured in from the north and colder climates.

But Juanita was more right. Millions of pounds of fin fish were stripped out of Biscayne Bay in the early decades of the 20th century. Like the bonefish, we are sifting for remnants.

John Knight eventually acquiesced to Juanita's pressure and the newspaper's coverage eventually helped to hound out a preposterous plan for exploiting the Florida Keys and a jetport in the middle of the Everglades. But John Knight was never a "friend" of the environment, and Miami Herald publishers haven't been either.

Why am I making this point?

Because not far up the coast, people are in fits over the pollution caused by Big Sugar and the mismanagement of water resources by the State of Florida, through the South Florida Water Management District. Newspapers like the Palm Beach Post and Treasure Coast have been unremitting in their coverage; reports that rarely make it down to Miami.

But where is the coverage on Biscayne Bay in the Miami Herald?

Last weekend there was a story in the newspaper, focusing on a postage stamp sized wetlands restoration project near Deering Bay Estates. Tomorrow I'll offer my observations on that.


Anonymous said...

Agree with everything you say. We do have - and should be thankful for - the Biscayne Waterkeeper - and Audubon Society is organizing a Biscayne Bay Coalition. It is sinful how little the Herald pays attention to the Bay -- but then what else is new about the Herald?

100panthers said...

What animal defecates, wallows and then happily eats and drinks in its own waste...?

Hint: This animal drives a Hummer and votes for Rick Scott and Marco Rubio.

Anonymous said...

Who decided the activities of man on earth are no more natural than all the other things that go on in the animal kingdom?

miaexile said...

good grief most have given up on the Herald for anything other than coupons and the occasional Hiassen column..people need leadership to focus and thats why we need to put Crist in office along with others who really care about what we naturally have here

Anonymous said...

So well written. So very informative.
Thank you.

Evan Skornick said...

As the former Chair of the Biscayne Bay Regional Restoration Coordination Team, my biggest regret was our inability to get the local and regional politicians to take an interest in our team, its mandate and the Action Plan we developed for the Bay. At a time when the State was still providing funds for critical estuary enhancement and restoration projects, flood/drainage improvement projects and environmental outreach projects, especially for the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and the Loxahatchee River, Biscayne Bay was left behind, struggling for recognition. The big difference? Those estuaries had issues teams with strong involvement by the local and Tallahassee based politicians. A missed opportunity for sure.

Anonymous said...

the managers of Biscayne NATIONAL PARK need to be allowed to do their job and not have to cower to the goofball special interests that have turned the place into a high powered playground. shallow water flats should be off limits to boats under power, reefs should be given full protection, fishing should be regulated based on science, and water quality should be a high priority. none of that is happening now and the place (a National Park no less) is a mess and highly degraded.